One Jew. One lonely Jew. Our brother. Our sister. Our neighbor. Our friend. Frustrated. Bewildered. Alone.
One Jew. That is all.
This essay is based on a simple observation: Every time we address a friend’s status or see a neighbor as a social issue, we risk becoming part of the problem. All our heartfelt best efforts – shidduch meetings, be-on-the-lookout calls, speed dating, shidduch dating articles – contribute to the shidduch problem if we forget for one instance the flesh-and-blood human being whom we intend to help.
This is no small problem. Much of our community relies on an impersonal and dehumanizing serial blind-dating shidduch system in which older singles engage in an endless cycle of resume-based dating. The system is widely reviled. It has no basis in Jewish law or tradition. It is antithetical to Jewish values. And it doesn’t work.
So why does it still exist? It persists only because we, through countless daily decisions, perpetuate it. It persists because well-meaning people too often fail to value the flesh-and-blood humans they are trying to help. It persists because singles allow themselves to be defined by their resumes and appearances rather than their character and personality.
What is needed is a new paradigm for shidduch dating, one based on the simple needs of real human beings. Let’s call this new approach
“Ready! Set! Go!” It is based on the simple idea that we, in our neighborhoods and our communities, can replace the serial blind-dating system that has evolved in the older, shidduch-dating community with a system based on friendships, relationships and trust.
The approach described here is inherently Jewish – and one our community sorely needs. If you agree with these ideas, please give them a try. They can be implemented by each of us, within our families and communities.
We need not find rabbis or leaders to blame, nor is it necessary to ask anyone’s permission. We need only reject cold and alienating practices and instead open up our hearts, expand our reach, and create warmer, stronger and more loving communities.
So here goes:
The first step is perhaps the most difficult: singles and their family and friends must acknowledge reality. After two or three years, they must acknowledge that the traditional shidduch dating system that worked well for many of their friends has failed, and that they have entered a new system: the cold and impersonal serial shidduch blind-dating system.
Faced with the realization that the system has failed them, people can start asking why and then attempt to come up with an answer: “The system failed because I had unrealistic expectations.” “I wasn’t ready to get married, so now I need to deal with my fears.” “I really don’t do well on blind dates.” “I need to quit my job go back to school move out of the house speak to a therapist go to singles events make new friends get over him (or her) date more date less ”
There may be a clear answer (“my sister’s ugly divorce left me gun shy”). Or there may be no reasonable answer at all.
But no matter what the answer, there is one crucial strategy for being ready: re-invest in old friendships and relationships and commit to developing new ones.
Friendships and relationships are their own reward. Being a good friend and neighbor is what much of the Torah is about. For singles, though, stronger relationships have added benefit. Real friendships and relationships relieve the isolation imposed on single people in the family-oriented frum community. Real friendships and relationships counteract the judgementalism that infects the serial shidduch blind-dating system. And real friendships and relationships create dating opportunities based upon real people, not their resumes.
Singles who have entered the serial bind-dating system should also devote significant efforts to developing a special relationship with a mentor. Entering the shidduch serial-dating system can be a lot like entering the advanced stages of a challenging video game – a bizarre, labyrinthine world requiring unique skills and knowledge to navigate to safety. Most people need help.
Not only that; singles, like all of us, face their own unique personal challenges. Often, these challenges lead, over time, to a fuller, more interesting, life. Yet singles are discouraged from acknowledging their own challenges because what to (reasonable) people are normal human conditions and experiences can be transformed by the system into horribly disfiguring flaws – “His sister is color-blind!” “Her brother is divorced!” “She wears a size [fill in the number]!”
In this way, long-term shidduch dating can often act like a dangerous flu. The virus itself may not kill you, but the high fever your body triggers to destroy the virus just might. Normal human challenges may be difficult to face, but a prolonged period of trying to present a perfect resume in the serial shidduch dating system can be more harmful than the underlying challenge itself.
That’s why anyone embarking on serial shidduch dating should seek out friends and mentors who can provide him or her with honest, dispassionate insight and advice about relationships – a rosh yeshiva, a community rabbi, a good friend, or a professional therapist (depending on the available resources, and one’s views of the appropriate roles these professionals should play).
The primary criterion should be that this friend and mentor cares specifically about the single and his or herneeds, hopes and desires. After all, that’s what the process is all about.
If you have real, trusting friendships, a mentor you can rely on, and have identified and are addressing your unique challenges, chances are you are Ready!
After reaching the Ready! stage, getting properly Set! is critically important; transforming the nature of the first few dates is crucial to successful dating.
In the serial blind-dating system, dates are devoted to screening – i.e., judging people to see if they meet your standards. There is little opportunity to just enjoy each other’s company, to share experiences, to exchange stories, to laugh. But that approach defeats the very purpose of dating, which requires you to be yourself as you relate to your date.
Singles should, therefore, try to minimize if not entirely eliminate the “double-blind” date – where the couple not only has never met but neither party has even met the person who set them up. There is nothing to do on such a date but spend time testing and judging the total stranger one has just met. Even the “half-double-blind” – where one of the parties has met the shadchan – should be used sparingly.
Instead of resume-based dating, singles should arrange dates based on real relationships and trust. Friends, family and communities are crucial to this effort. People sincerely interested in making shidduchim for singles would be well advised to curtail their extensive efforts at setting up people they don’t know at all – the shidduch meetings, the be-on-the-lookout calls, the speed dating, and all the other practices that depersonalize and dehumanize the flesh-and-blood people they are trying to bring together. Instead, they can spend their time getting to know the singles they want to help – as neighbors and friends, not as projects.
This may seem like a radical idea. After all, serial blind-dating usually does work – eventually.
But this eventual success comes at enormous cost. Dating in the current resume-based system is based largely on superficial qualifications; more and more people chasing fewer and fewer stellar resumes. In a system based upon real people and communities, we get to know and value individuals, set them up with appropriate dates, and support them through the process. The result: fewer, better dates – and a focus on people rather than resumes.
This approach can also address another problem. In the current resume-based system, those with less impressive resumes can find it difficult to attract dates – even though they may have stellar characters and would make exceptional mates. By getting to know singles as real people, we are more likely to set people up with those for whom they are best suited, not those whom we consider the best “catch.”
Informal singles events can be an important part of the solution. When done properly, these settings provide a judgment-free zone in which people can be themselves.
In many cases, singles are already, through school or work, interacting socially with gentiles and non-religious Jews but nevertheless feel constrained from socializing with their religious peers. Communities, families and friends can help address this challenge. A well-placed voice of approval can go a long way toward helping singles participate without risking any cost to their reputation.
A story. One of my friends attended a small yeshiva by day and a secular college at night – a college with many frum women. His rosh yeshiva delivered frequent, fiery speeches warning of the consequences of fraternization. But boys will be boys and girls will be girls; class notes were shared, study groups formed, friendships developed. Over time, friendships became relationships; some got serious; dating and marriage followed.
And then a funny thing happened. The very rosh yeshiva who by day had delivered fiery speeches against the evils of fraternization, by night presided over the weddings of the couples who had broken his rules – indeed whose marriages resulted from breaking those rules.
The rosh yeshiva’s rules against fraternization were designed to protect his yeshiva. For the yeshiva itself, they were good rules; after all, if the yeshiva’s college program gained a “bad reputation,” it might be cancelled entirely and the yeshiva might be forced to close. But for the students, the rules made little sense.
Much like the students in my friend’s yeshiva, many people belong to multiple communities, some of which prohibit and some of which permit them to meet and date on their own. And, like the rosh yeshiva in the story, even members of communities that frown on these activities will typically forgive singles who meet on their own (so long as they adhere to halachic guidelines).
Singles events are not a solution, though; they are merely a tool. The frum community has a number of its own singles scenes, many of them as isolating and alienating as the serial shidduch-dating system. They fail for the same reason: the lack of real friendships and relationships that can help people be themselves and provide the support they need as they move through the process.
When you can be yourself on a date, without worrying too much about what image you present, and when you can judge your date primarily by how much you enjoy him or her as a person, chances are you are Set!
Relationships often falter at the end of the process. Commitment time is at hand but the safety is on, the trigger is stuck. There is no easy solution at this stage of the process. That is why creating friendships and relationships at the Ready! and Set! stages are crucial. The relationships fostered through these stages can help a single proceed directly to Go!
If you find you cannot pass Go!, simply go back to Ready! and Set! Do not resort to serial blind dating. Trust in your family, friends and community; spend time with your friends; seek out new ones. And most of all, continue to trust in yourself.
One More True Story
A friend of mine was an “older single” when his roommate got engaged. That started him thinking about why he himself hadn’t gotten married yet. He and I spent a good deal of time talking about his relationships and experiences. (Ready!)
His roommate’s fianc? introduced him in shul to her best friend. They met again over lunch, then again at a singles event, and yet again at the roommate’s wedding – where he asked her out.
Date Three had always been an important barometer for my friend, since that is the point at which, under the rules, shidduch dating is supposed to turn serious. Though lately he had been dating more informally, he still tried to apply the rules.
At the end of the date, he walked me through his concerns. “She’s not this enough for me,” he said. “Wait,” I told him, “she’s very this.’” He thought for a second, smiled, and agreed.
But then he frowned. “But she’s not that enough for me,” he said, this time sounding badly stressed. “Wait,” I said, “not only is she verythat, but she’s more that than you are.” He thought again, and this time he laughed.
But then he frowned again. “Wait,” he began. “Wait ” But try as he might, he couldn’t even begin to think of what the other might be that concerned him more than this and that. “Anyway,” I told him, “what’s the big deal about a fourth date?” (Set!)
My friend had met someone within the context of a strong social network. He had learned to ignore the social constraints of the shidduch system that didn’t work for him, such as the demand that he feel a certain way by a certain date. He had learned to be less judgmental. Now he had a chance to date the way he wanted, the way that might work for him.
He asked her out again. Three months later they were engaged. (Go!)
Mordecai (Marty) Bienstock is a partner at the law firm of Wilson Elser in Albany, New York, where he lives with his wife, Karen, and their three children. He is a reformed and repentant serial shidduch dater, with serial dating experience across North America and the Middle East.